What I liked about this book was the complexity of its characters. It tells the story of a former Communist dictator being put on trial by the new democratic government. In another author’s hands, it could have been unbearable. The Cold War is often viewed in simplistic terms: we won, they lost, democracy=good, communism=evil. It would have been easy to make the characters into cardboard cutouts, the dictator into some kind of James Bond villain.
The reality, of course, is that nobody thinks of himself as evil. We might think others are evil, but for our own actions there is always a justification. It’s the way human beings operate: we act, and then our brains go into overdrive telling stories and rewriting history with ourselves as the heroes. The main character in this book, former dictator Stoyanov, is no different. He has been a dictator for decades, has spied on his own people, jailed those who opposed him, stifled freedom of expression, etc etc. But in his eyes, he was serving his country, building Socialism, doing what needed to be done. As he writes in a letter to the new government:
I have done everything in the belief that it was good for my country. I have made mistakes along the way, but I have not committed crimes against my people. It is for these mistakes that I accept political responsibility.
Reading this book, in fact, I was reminded of Tony Blair’s resignation speech:
Hand on heart, I did what I thought was right. I may have been wrong. That is your call. But believe one thing, if nothing else. I did what I thought was right for our country.
Blair, of course, was democratically elected and did not infringe his people’s freedoms in the way an Eastern Bloc dictator did. That’s not what I’m trying to say. I just mean that in many people’s view, including mine, he committed serious crimes while in office. Whichever way you look at it, he’s certainly responsible for many thousands of deaths. There’s even a campaign to have him arrested. But he retells the story to make himself the hero. I may have made mistakes, but I honestly tried to do the right thing. Listen out for it – it’s a common line people use when they’re accused of doing wrong. I’ve probably used it myself a few times.
The other characters in the book are well fleshed out as well, from the prosecutor to the random people watching on TV. Everyone has their ambiguities, their own personal mix of higher motives and blatant self-interest. The trial delivers a verdict, but fails to deliver what people really want, because what they want is unattainable. An oppressive regime affects the whole society for generations, corrupts and co-opts ordinary people, blurs the distinctions between right and wrong. Justice is hard enough to attain in a simple criminal trial. When it’s an entire nation’s policies for half a century that’s being put on trial, it’s not surprising that the results often fail to satisfy.
So Barnes does a good job of bringing out the complexities of a particular political moment. His writing is also very engaging, very smooth and elegant right from the beginning. The plot was not the most compelling, because it basically just follows the trial, and apart from a few twists and turns along the way, you know more or less where things are heading. Thankfully it’s a relatively short book, otherwise I think it could have started to drag. But at the length it is (138 pages), the interesting characters, clever observations and elegant prose were enough to sustain my interest. I definitely want to read more Julian Barnes books now, with A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters being top of the list.